ALA’s State of Lung Cancer Report: What RTs Need to Know

 Published: March 14, 2018

By: Heather Willden


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The American Lung Association has just released a first-of-its-kind report detailing the impact lung cancer is making on the lives of Americans throughout the U.S.

The report offers state-by-state data showing the discrepancies that exist between the states in everything from lung cancer incidence to early screening and diagnosis.

“Nationally, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 18.1 percent — meaning four out of five people diagnosed will not survive longer than five years,” ALA President and CEO Harold P. Wimmer was quoted as saying. “More must be done to save lives, and this new report serves as a powerful tool for identifying both needs and opportunities in every state to turn the tide against lung cancer.”

Other key findings in the report include:

  • More than 234,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year, and the rate of new cases varies greatly by state, with Utah having the nation’s lowest lung cancer rates and Kentucky the highest.
  • In the 31 states that track five year lung cancer survival rates, New York has the highest at 24 percent while Louisiana has the lowest at 15.9 percent.
  • People who are diagnosed at an early stage of lung cancer are five time more likely to survive, but only 18.9 percent are diagnosed at such a stage.
  • Lung cancer is more likely to be cured if the tumor can be surgically removed and surgery is more likely when the cancer is diagnosed in an early stage.

RTs play role in early screening

Respiratory therapists are no strangers to lung cancer patients, but until recently they mainly cared for the respiratory needs of these patients after it was too late for treatments to result in a cure.

As the ALA report points out, however, early screening for lung cancer can – and indeed, is – making a difference, and RTs are getting more and more involved with these programs in their facilities.

Rita Edwards, BS, RRT, RPFT, is a lung cancer navigator at Paoli Hospital in Paoli, PA. She took the job on several years ago as a part of her facility’s mission to launch a low dose computed tomography (LDCT) screening service for patients deemed at high risk for lung cancer based on their age and smoking history.

The move came on the heels of new guidelines calling for early screening by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network in these individuals.

“As a respiratory therapist my role as a lung cancer screening navigator is well supported in our four acute care hospital system,” Edwards said. “My counterparts are all oncology nurses, and just as they are well qualified, the RT can focus on navigating patients with a mostly smoking related disease with a solid knowledge base in lung diseases.”

In an AARC Times article published in 2015, Edwards noted the literature states it takes about 300 screenings to find one cancer. Her hospital is beating those odds.

“Within the past 14 months we’ve done over 400 screenings and have had four positive tissue diagnosis of lung cancer — and saved four lives!” she said.

Edwards believe other respiratory therapists can get involved in lung cancer screening and she suggests those who are interested in the area network with the oncology staff and attend monthly meetings or conferences held at their facilities on lung cancer patients.

She emphasizes she still works in pulmonary diagnostics and pulmonary rehabilitation as well, but that those areas integrate well with the lung navigator position. Administrative support is important to making the combined job a success.

Leveling the playing field

According to the ALA report, screening centers like the one operated by Paoli Hospital are becoming more available, but they aren’t equally available across the nation. While Delaware had the most screening centers per million people, at 21.1, in Utah the number of centers per million people came in at only 0.7.

Respiratory therapists can play a part in leveling the playing field.

As Edwards wrote in her 2015 AARC Times article. “To me, becoming a lung cancer navigator is just one more thing that validates what many of us have been doing for years — guiding patients through the process of obtaining the care they need to help them succeed in living a better life.”

Keep the conversation going

How are you helping lung cancer patients? Start a discussion at AARConnect.


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Heather Willden

Heather Willden is the Director of Governance and Strategic Initiatives for the AARC where she works with state affiliates as the HOD liaison. She also manages DEI efforts and strategic initiatives. Connect with her about these topics by email, AARConnect or LinkedIn. When she's not working, you can find her podcasting with her husband, exploring new hiking trails, photographing, and spending time with her family.

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